Is this an opinionated question? (An example from Truman & the A-bomb)

As a teacher, sometimes I’m asked this question about the questions I ask my students: “Is this an opinionated question?”

“Yes it is,” I reply.

“So you can’t mark it off, right? It’s just an opinion.”

“Oh no, you can most definitely get it wrong.”

“But how can an opinion be wrong?”

“Perhaps an opinion can’t be wrong. But an opinion can be poorly researched and bereft of logical reasoning. Therefore, it can be wrong.”

They usually don’t respond after I use the word ‘bereft’, and they go about their business in answering the question.

People, of course, are entitled to whatever opinion they want, but all opinions are not created equally. For example, take this exam question:

Was Truman justified in dropping the A-bomb on Japan?

There’s no right or wrong answer, and there are people who hold extremely polarized views of this issue. But there are poorly reasoned and supported answers, even by those who demonstrate passion on this issue.

How about this: “Truman was an inhumane person who ultimately killed upwards of a half-million people with two A-bombs. He should have been tried for war crimes.”

That may indeed be someone’s opinion, but they’d get low marks in my class for such shoddy reasoning because they have failed to demonstrate the ability to understand both sides of the issue in a non-inflammatory way. A response as is written above shows little understanding of WWII and the Pacific Theatre in specific. It is an emotional appeal resting only on the fact that lots of people died, so therefore it’s bad. Yes, it’s true that when lots of people die, it’s bad, but that is drastically over-simplistic.It would be the same type of opinion which might equate Naziism with Trumanism because, after all, didn’t both of them kill a lot of people. Of course, level-headed people would see that there is in fact a huge difference.

What about an opinion on the other side of the same issue?

“Truman was justified for dropping the bomb because the Japanese were savages and didn’t deserve anything but death.”

This opinion is also inflammatory in an unnecessary way. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been people who have had this opinion. The problem with this opinion is that it too is simplistic and emotional, only taking into the account the barbarity of the Pacific battles. It shows no understanding of Japanese militarism, Japanese culture, or the human cost of such an undertaking as dropping the A-bomb.

But it is entirely possible to craft good and solid opinions which would support both sides of this equation.

It’s not so difficult for an American who spends time talking to a member of the Greatest Generation to see that the A-bomb was the right move. The casualty estimates of a US led invasion of the Japanese homeland were staggering. Based on what the US forces faced in places like Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa; Americans learned that the Americans that the Japanese would not surrender. The Japanese home front was bracing for invasion with every man, woman, and child ready to defend to the death. It may have cost one half-million American soldier casualties to completely defeat them. It also would most certainly have cost millions of Japanese lives. So when Truman was confronted with an alternative, it was quite simple. Two bombs in three days and the war was over. No contest.

But what about the other side. Truman was not justified because … I have heard arguments that once Okinawa was taken, there was no need to invade right away. Truman could have put Japan under threat of nuclear bomb – could have given a demonstration of its power in an underpopulated area – could have used blockades and threats against the emperor – could have waited longer for the Soviets to surround the north … etc … Some may question the validity and effectiveness of such ideas, but on humanitarian grounds, these are solid opinions that could at least be discussed.

So I hope through this example that we can see how tangible and helpful dialogue about opinionated questions can be achieved without allowing the type of inflammatory remarks which are so prevalent in this day and age. Opinions matter when they are reasoned out in logical ways and supported with fact and concrete examples.

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